Backpacker’s Travel Guide to Hanoi, Vietnam

The capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi is everything that symbolises a busy Asian city. Wandering through the Old Quarter of the city is an assault on the senses; with busy little streets full of motorbikes, tiny hole in the wall restaurants and food stalls, all surrounded by old crumbling colonial buildings.

This is where we started our travels in Vietnam, and it gave me a great insight into the country. You should definitely spend at least a few days here to really experience the city.

Crazy traffic in Hanoi, Vietnam

Things to do in Hanoi

Just wandering around the Old Quarter is enough to keep you busy for hours. Grab a Bia Hoi (draught beer) or a Ca Phe Den (Vietnamese coffee) at one of the local corner bars or cafes and watch life go by. There are lots of specific sights to see as well:

Hoan Kiem Lake & Ngoc Son Temple

In the centre of the Old Quarter is the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake, where local couples come to sit by the lake at all times of the day. This is a great place to grab a baguette and come and have a picnic.

Ngoc Son Temple sits on an island in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake and it has a beautiful bridge connecting it to the mainland. The temple dates back to the 18th century and it contains an enormous embalmed turtle that came from the lake. Apparently there is also a 200kg turtle that still lives in the lake and can sometimes be seen from the temple. It costs 20,000 Dong ($1) to enter the temple.

Hoan Kiem Lake is especially beautiful at night when it is all lit up.

Looking towards Ngoc Son Temple at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam

View to Ngoc Son Temple at Hoan Kiem Lake

Dong Xuan Night Market

I love markets so I was excited when I found out that Hanoi has one right in the centre of the Old Quarter. The night market runs along the road from the roundabout at the top of Hoan Kiem Lake, all of the way up to the Dong Xuan Day Market. It is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and is supposed to open at 6:30pm, however they were still setting up the stalls when we got there around 7pm. It’s best to wait until about 8pm if you want to see it in full swing.

The market has all kinds of things for sale and there is plenty of food stalls along the way, along with a bunch of Lau (hot pot) restaurants at the northern end.

Dong Xuan Night Market in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hoa Lo Prison

Built in the late 1800’s, Hoa Lo Prison is where the French kept the Vietnamese political prisoners, and then was later used by the North Vietnamese to hold American prisoners during the Vietnam War. Now a museum, Hoa Lo Prison is an interesting but sombre place to visit to learn about some of Vietnam’s history. Entry to the prison costs 20,000 Dong ($1).

Models of shackled prisoners at Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hoa Lo Prison Museum

St Joseph’s Cathedral

Located on the corner of Ly Quoc Su and Au Trieu, St Joseph’s Cathedral is an odd sight in such an Asian city. Stepping inside this old Catholic Cathedral is like being somewhere in Europe. The cathedral is free to enter and is open 5-7am and 5-7pm every day.

St Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi, Vietnam

St Joseph’s Cathedral

Bach Ma Temple

This small temple on Hang Buom is apparently the oldest temple in Hanoi, dating back to the 12th century. The temple is free to enter and the interior is very beautiful. Remember to be respectful and wear appropriate clothing.

Bach Ma Temple in Hanoi, Vietnam

Bach Ma Temple

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

We didn’t actually get to visit here as we were there at the wrong time, but it is worth mentioning. The Mausoleum is the most sacred place in Vietnam as this is the resting place of Ho Chi Minh himself, whose body has been perfectly preserved to be viewed by the Vietnamese wishing to pay their respects. It is apparently free to enter the Mausoleum however it is only open from 8-11am on Tuesday to Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. You also must leave all cameras, phones and bags at the door.

There are also lots of other sites in the complex to check out so you could spend a lot of time here.

Where to stay in Hanoi

Nam Hai Hotel

We stayed here for four nights when we first arrived in Hanoi. Located on Duong Thanh, Nam Hai is right in the Old Quarter and close to plenty of restaurants. The hotel and room itself was very clean and beautifully decorated with wooden furnishings. The staff weren’t very friendly though, and they seemed to be annoyed with us because we didn’t book any tours with them. We paid $19 per night for a nice room with breakfast included. The buffet breakfast was nice, however when we checked out we were made to pay extra for the breakfast even though it was meant to be included in the price.

Camel City Hotel

We only stayed here for one night on our return from Cat Ba Island. I wish that we had stayed here on our first visit. The hotel was again lovely and clean and the room very comfortable. We paid $15 per night including breakfast, which they didn’t charge us extra for. The breakfast was really good. What made this hotel great was the staff. They were very friendly and did everything they could to make sure we had a nice stay. Camel City Hotel is located down a quiet alleyway off Dao Duy Tu and one of the staff met us on the street to show us the way, even though they had no idea what time we were arriving. They let us store our bags at the hotel while we waited for our night train and even let us use their shower in the afternoon before we left. It was raining when we had to leave to catch our train so the staff escorted us to our taxi with umbrellas to stop us from getting wet. Highly recommend this one!

Where to eat in Hanoi

When you wander around the Old Quarter you will stumble upon eateries of some sort on every street. There is a lot to choose from. Here are some of the places that we tried:

Café Linh Phung

Located on Dinh Liet just above Hoan Kiem Lake, we ate at Café Linh Phung twice during our time in Hanoi. Their food is great and also cheap. They have plenty of vegetarian options as well. Try the fresh vegetable spring rolls!

Fresh Spring Rolls at Cafe Linh Phung in Hanoi, Vietnam

Fresh vegetable spring rolls at Cafe Linh Phung

Bun Bo Nam Cho

There are lots of places to eat on Ly Quoc Su and around St Joseph’s Cathedral. This little restaurant serves up great Bun Cha among many other tasty dishes. The prices are great as well.

Bun Ca Hai Phuong

This little hole in the wall is located on Duong Thanh just down the street from Nam Hai Hotel. They serve up Bun (rice noodle soup) with meat. I had Bun Bo (beef) and Veronika had Bun Ca (fish). They don’t speak any English here but just point at the names on the board and you can get by ok.

Soul Café

The food here isn’t cheap, but with a great view of Hoan Kiem Lake, it is a good spot to go for a coffee and enjoy the view.

Joma Bakery Café

Located on Ly Quoc Su, this is a decent priced bakery and coffee shop. I found a really nice Macchiato here and their baked goods are very tasty. They also have free WiFi.

Quan Bia Minh

Located right next door to Café Linh Phung on Dinh Liet, Quan Bia Minh is a great place to sit on the balcony and have a 75 cent Bia Hoi (draught beer). The food isn’t anything great, but it’s a great place to go for a drink or two in the afternoon.

Street view from Quan Bia Minh in Hanoi, vietnam

Street view from the balcony at Quan Bia Minh

Indigenous

This is a tiny coffee shop on Au Trieu that serves really nice local coffee. An espresso here was only 75 cents and it was amazing. The shop also sells the coffee beans, teas and handmade mugs and other crafts.

Street food

There are plenty of street food stalls around the Old Quarter. Try a cheap and tasty baguette from one of the many carts or grab some marinated meat skewers at the night market.

Baguette at the night market in Hanoi, Vietnam

Tasty baguette with chargrilled pork and other yummy fillings at the Dong Xuan Night Market

Transport tips

It’s easy and safe to get around Hanoi in a metered taxi. Something to keep note of is that some taxis have dodgy meters that are sped up to charge you more. We got one of these once on our way to the bus station. Two companies that we found to be good were Mai Linh and Hanoi Tourist Taxi.

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19 comments… add one
  • Jennifer Jun 5, 2013

    Nice guide. We also got a dodgy taxi – our bus from hoi an had dropped us 10 minutes outside town (a scam in itself) so we walked for about 5 minutes away from the bus and jumped in a taxi. He put its meter on amd it literally zoomed up so quickly. It was at $30 for 10 minite ride…we argued and argued with him, then just gave him $10 and went on our way – although im still sure that was too much.
    Jennifer recently posted..Sharing my obsession with PinterestMy Profile

    • Dean Wickham Jun 12, 2013

      Hi Jennifer. Sometimes it is hard to avoid these scams. Often the only way to learn is to have it happen to you. I’m hoping this guide might save a few people from getting a dodgy taxi 🙂

  • Vinnie Jun 7, 2013

    Excellent article on Hanoi, a place with interesting history and so much this place went through and always rose from the ashes like phoenix.

    • Dean Wickham Jun 12, 2013

      Thanks Vinnie. It is a very interesting city with a lot to offer.

  • Helen Magner Jun 7, 2013

    Vietnam is still on my bucket list. I hope I don’t get too old before I’m able to go.
    Would it be too much to ask how you go about creating the small profile and picture in the top right of your site. If you take a look you will see that my blog is very simple. I experiment for hours trying to make changes but to no avail. Unlike you I am not all linked up and I am only being followed by friends which is really what I want. However I am becoming more ambitious to having it look more professional. I am enjoying reading your posts. How much longer are you in Vietnam.

    • Dean Wickham Jun 12, 2013

      Hi Helen. You’ll get here one day; you are never too old! I was in Vietnam for a month and am now in Cambodia 🙂
      If you mean the small “about me” picture in the sidebar, that is just a simple bit of html that places the image and the text below it. It’s much easier if you have a self hosted Wordpress site. I’d suggest getting an ebook to help you learn more about it. Nomadic Matt has a good one on his site for about $5.

  • Dan Jun 22, 2013

    Fantastic guide. I miss Vietnam even more after reading this
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    • Dean Wickham Jun 22, 2013

      Glad you liked the guide, Dan. I hope you can make it back to Vietnam soon.

  • Vietnam Tours Guide Sep 30, 2013

    Hi Dean,
    Nice post and nice experience!
    How many days did you stay in Hanoi?
    From this post, It seems you just have time to see some famous attractions near the center, but those’re all attractive places so much for tourist. I love the paragraph which is full of tasty Hanoi Street foods. You must enjoyed it so much when tooks very nice photos like this.
    I really hope you will come back here oneday and get a chance to see others attractions around Hanoi. I’d bet you’ll love it like our Hanoi!
    Best regards,
    Pretty

    • Dean Wickham Oct 10, 2013

      I spent about 4 or 5 days all up in Hanoi. I did see the main attractions but spent a lot of time just walking around the Old Quarter. I love street food and eat as much as I can 🙂 I look forward to going back for another visit.

  • Adveturous Aubrey Mar 9, 2016

    Wow, after reading this article I wish I could travel now to Vietnam as a backpacker I would love to travel to your place. This is a great post and this for all the backpackers out there plan to travel somewhere. I’d love to share this article to my Backpacker friends.

    • Dean Wickham Apr 24, 2016

      I hope you found the article helpful and that you can plan a trip to Vietnam soon. Wonderful country and cheap to travel 🙂

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